Was It Rape?

I have had sex with five men. Three were boyfriends, one is now my husband, and the other is a one-night stand — and potentially a rapist.

I knew him in college. His name is Matt*. We weren’t close, but we were acquaintances. “Party friends.” I had his number, and texting him wasn’t strange, so long as the conversation stuck to plans for the weekend, or something equally light. I can’t remember when we met, but I do remember when I saw him last.

It was Friday, February 13th, 2009. We were both at the same Heaven and Hell party. I was wearing a costume from Arlene’s: a white crushed velvet dress with marabou trim and wings with an attached halo. The dress was short, but the neckline was high, and I was wearing white tights and silver flats. None of that should matter, but somehow, to me, it does. Not so much the outfit itself, but the intention of it. I wanted to attract men.

This Friday the 13th was unlucky; I was two weeks out of my first real relationship. It had lasted two years. Two weeks before this particular night, I had stood in front of my boyfriend, the boy I thought I would marry, the boy to whom I lost my virginity, and told him I thought he shouldn’t be my boyfriend anymore. It broke something inside me, to do that, and I don’t even remember what I said. I remember his tears, and mine. I remember hugging him, holding him, knowing it was the best thing to do, but hating to hurt, to make him hurt. I hated how easy the decision was, how right it felt, and how much it was ruining both of us — at least for a little while.

Afterward, I couldn’t sleep for weeks until I saw the sun come up and heard the birds began to chirp. I started taking NyQuil to help me fall asleep, but all that accomplished were groggy mornings. I had a lot of time to think.

I would lay with my head at the foot of my bed and wonder if anyone would find me desirable again. A couple nights after the break up, I had kissed a guy friend of mine on his futon. As we began to make out, I slipped a hand down his basketball shorts and he had stopped me, stating the obvious: we were friends. He was friends with my ex. And (unspoken) I was obviously not ready to be sleeping with someone new. At the time, I was hurt, angry. I rolled over in a huff, fell asleep, and tip-toed out of the house before he woke up the next day. Now I know he made the right decision, that he was being a good guy, a good friend.

But I felt like a sexual pariah. The guys I knew wouldn’t make a move because they were friends with my ex. One guy I knew turned into a one-way friend with benefits — I would give him handjobs and blowjobs in exchange for lavish praise that at first made me feel like a sex goddess, but later left me achingly unfulfilled.

The only guy who would flirt with me was Matt. He told me on the phone that he was attracted to me some days before the party, and the eagerness in his voice was something to latch on to, something that gave me hope.

In other circumstances, sex wouldn’t have been so important. If I had left my boyfriend for almost any other reason, I wouldn’t have minded the break from men — I would have welcomed it, spent time with my girlfriends, eaten ice cream, cried at rom-coms. But the reason I left him had everything to do with sex.

He had seemingly stopped seeing me as a sexual person, someone to be desired. We spent most of our two years together in a long-distance relationship, so when we saw each other, sex was always on the menu. But when we finally came to live in the same city at the same time, that particular dish had been 86'ed — and not by me. We spent most of our time at his place, sharing an apartment with four other guys, one of whom slept in the same room. For whatever reason, my empty apartment was never considered an option. He would come home from class and go straight to the computer to play games, barely kissing me hello, much less considering an afternoon delight before the roommate came home, too. The last day of our relationship, I got changed to go running, stripping down naked and putting on tiny shorts and a sports bra, but he never once looked up at me, didn’t even consider turning around to check out his girlfriend’s body. That moment has stayed with me far longer than I thought it would, led to more regrettable decisions than I could have imagined.

Like the angel-winged dress.

I was fighting off a cold that night, but I wasn’t about to let that get in my way — especially since Matt and I had had a conversation earlier that week where he admitted he was attracted to me. I took two DayQuil and hit the ground running with a screwdriver, thinking that a mixed drink with orange juice would be good for me somehow. I got my drink in Hell, otherwise known as the basement, filled with red bulbs and salacious dance music. Upstairs was Heaven, with a smattering of twinkle lights and not much else. It was clear where the party would take place.

The party was in Matt’s honor. He had already graduated, but was back for a weekend visit, so it wasn’t easy to snag a moment alone. Somewhere, though, in between my second and third screwdriver, I managed to whisper in his ear, “If you want to hook up, let me know.”

In my mind, having only slept with one person, ‘hooking up’ was anything from kissing to having sex, and I intended to draw the line at intercourse. I figured we could make out, maybe fool around — have some sort of single-girl adventure that I would carefully craft and limit to my comfort zone. Apparently he thought it meant something else.

The last thing I remember was asking the bartender, my friend who had refused to do more than kiss me, to cut me off after my third screwdriver.

After that, I blacked out.

I didn’t pass out, I don’t think. Not that I would remember. But there is absolutely no memory between Drink #3 and having sex in my bed. From what I’ve been told after the fact, I left with Matt of my own volition. No one stopped or questioned me when I did. Apparently I seemed to know what I was doing and what I wanted. But the shock of ‘waking up’ to being fucked (honestly, there’s no other word for it) will stay with me forever.

I was completely naked, my clothes in a pile on the floor beside my mattress. I don’t remember taking them off. Worse, I had a tampon in at the party, which I found later, in a corner of the room (thankfully it was a precautionary measure on the last day of my period and there was no mess to clean up). I don’t know who took it out of me, who suggested we leave the party, and, most troubling of all, whether I ever said yes.

I had told Matt I wanted to hook up, but I never meant for sex to happen. In fact, I was strictly against it. But I never told him no, either. Not when I ‘woke up,’ or any time afterward. I remember the sex being good, even though I had to put it on pause a couple times to throw up. I was so drunk that I didn’t feel him give me seven hickies on my neck, all of which I had to hide for my double shift at Applebee’s the next day. I didn’t feel the fitted sheet come off my mattress, didn’t feel the harsh threads underneath shred my lower back into a massive scab that didn’t heal for weeks. I always thought of that night as a bad decision — I should have taken better care of myself, shouldn’t have gotten so drunk. I accepted full responsibility for my actions, even though I can never say for sure what they were.

Lately, though, the issue has become more clouded in my mind.

I still feel some sort of responsibility for what happened, because I do believe in women having agency enough to stay relatively safe and sober. But what about when that doesn’t happen? When the drinks hit too hard and you say something naive to someone much more experienced? What happens when you leave a party with someone, but don’t remember how it happened, or even that it happened at all? What happens when you have no idea whether you gave consent?

I always told this story half laughing at myself. Silly girl, got too drunk, made a pass that was too forward, and look what happened. I would say things like, “Obviously I was at fault, but he definitely took advantage of the situation.” But I’ve recently wondered what I would say if this had happened to a friend of mine, or someone on the news? What would I think then?

I might stop to think that as a woman, I ought to be more mindful when I drink to avoid such a situation. But, if I stumbled across this situation in someone else’s life, I would have known that anyone who is blackout drunk is in no position to give consent.

What does that mean? For me? For Matt? For how I look back on my life?

Logically, there is an answer. I could not have given consent in that state. Sex without consent is rape. I was raped.

Emotionally, though, in my own mind and skin, the situation is muddier. Can you be raped if you enjoyed it during, but regret it after? Can you be raped if your supposed rapist thought you were on the same page and you never clarified? Can you be raped if it doesn’t feel like rape at all?

These are questions I’ll ask myself, my therapist, and my husband, probably many times and over the course of months or years. There’s not much I know about the answers. But I do know that sleeping with a girl who is drunk to the point of stopping sex to throw up is difficult to defend. I know that bragging about it at brunch to all of your friends (and hers) the next day is a sign of something gross in Matt, and the fact that none of my friends ever mentioned it to me until I asked, long after the fact, is a sign of their respectability. I know that I prefer to say “he took advantage of me” because that’s what feels true. And I know that I never put myself in a situation like that ever again.

Do I deserve that experience? I don’t like the word ‘deserve,’ but I’ll still answer: absolutely not. No person should ever feel the awful pain (physical and emotional) that I did the next day, that first single Valentine’s Day. Lord knows, I cried hard. I tried to ‘own the experience’ as a cool, sexual woman who had a crazy one night stand. But I felt shame, regret — I felt like a slut. In the aftermath, I would have done almost anything to take it back. But while getting blackout drunk is always a bad idea, being taken advantage of while blackout drunk isn’t something I could control.

I’ve learned my limits, with drinking and sex, and I know too well that showing off your body will bring out the worst in some men. But I still drink, get drunk, have sex, and flaunt myself — for myself. Those are choices I make of my own volition, and what happened on February 13, 2009 was not a choice I made willingly or consciously.

Was it rape? I still say no, though I’m sure there are many who would answer otherwise. Was it a violation of trust, of my state of mind, of my body? It’s painful to admit — I’m still the girl who wants to always be in control of her life, and what happens to her in it — but yes. And in the end, that’s certainly enough. Enough to leave scars, to ensure my longest bout of celibacy, to scare me away from and out of experiences with men I could have otherwise trusted, that I could have grown from and enjoyed. It was enough.

The only thing I can truly say I know is that rape is always sex without consent, and sex without consent may not always be rape, but the gray area, the lack of easily categorization, does not mean it doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t mean it isn’t wrong. And it doesn’t mean that it’s my fault.

*Name changed

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